Written to be read as an autobiography of its central protagonist, Barney Panofsky (portrayed in the film by Paul Giamatti), the novel chronicles the bizarre successes and failures that make up his life. These events are recounted by the man from an elderly age, after he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, which explains the memory lapses and footnote corrections by his son throughout the novel. His unreliability as a narrator is realized through the varying mental states of his character. Perhaps all these incredible events didn't quite happen like he says.
The film works in the same way, opening with an elderly Barney, with each recounted chapter of his life sparked by an image or his recognition of an object. We are taken on a turbulent journey through Barney's life, stretching from his late twenties, living in Rome, to his middle-age in Montreal, Canada. As an overweight, cigar smoking and heavy drinking television producer (for Totally Unnecessary Productions) and hockey fanatic, Barney is a loathsome man, but throughout his life he is prone to acts of surprising generosity and kindness, especially towards his third wife and mother of his children, Miriam (Rosamund Pike).
I didn't especially like Barney, but through Giamatti's wonderful performance, you begin to warm to him. After briefly marrying Clara (Rachel Lefevre) when living in Rome, he returns to Canada and marries his second wife (Minnie Driver). It is at their lavish Jewish wedding that Barney meets and starts pursuing Miriam, spelling impending doom to this marriage also. Riddled throughout his marriages are Barney's friendships with Boogie (Scott Speedman), a promising young writer, and his father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman). Boogie's untimely death results in a murder investigation, with Barney finding himself the chief suspect at the time.
The best moments, and certainly the funniest, are when Izzy and Barney share the screen. Hoffman is a delight. Actually, the casting is perfect. Giamatti deservedly received recognition for his excellent performance, picking up a Golden Globe (Musical/Comedy). You might question why it has been classified as a comedy in the first place, though. Following Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and Miles from Sideways, Panofsky ranks amongst Gimatti's best roles, whose ordinary everyday-guy boisterousness and obnoxiousness make room for surprising gifts of heart and sentimentalism. Hoffman, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike are also very good in support.
As much as this film wanted to be a triumphant ode to the quirks of life, I wasn't absorbed or overly entertained throughout. The rest of my audience, mostly elderly people, were really entertained. The words 'beautiful' and 'moving' were amongst the the post-film discussion. But overall, I have to claim Barney's Version was unsatisfying and irrelevant.
My Rating: 3 Stars (C+)